The thousands of gallons of oil that washed up on beaches of coastal Southern California last week may have been drilled by a private company, but it came from land owned by every American taxpayer. Right now, President Joe BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE has an opportunity and obligation to ensure that publicly owned lands and waters are never again the source of this kind of economic and ecological tragedy.
One-quarter of U.S. climate pollution comes from publicly owned lands and waters that the federal government leases to fossil fuel corporations for as little as $2 an acre. The Biden administration is currently reviewing whether these kinds of leases are worth the immense impacts to our climate, clean air and clean water. The leaking oil pipeline off the coast of Huntington Beach, California, which spilled upwards of 144,000 gallons of oil, couldn’t make it any clearer: It’s time to phase out fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
Biden was on the right track when he took office, issuing an executive order pausing new leasing for fossil fuels on public lands and waters. Unfortunately a federal judge blocked this order, and instructed the Department of the Interior to move forward with leases while reviewing the program. While the court battles play out, Interior keeps leasing at an alarming pace; the department has approved 2,500 new permits to drill on public and tribal lands this year — numbers not seen since the Bush administration. The government is currently advertising nearly 750,000 acres to oil companies, all of which is at risk of being drilled without major changes in leasing policies.
The California spill proves that these leases aren’t just an academic exercise. The real-world consequences are only growing, and our public lands, waters, local economies, recreation and health are the victims.
Sumio Uchida, a lifelong resident of Huntington Beach who watched a similar spill unfold when a tanker ran aground in 1990, told the L.A. Times that he was concerned not only for the environment but for his community's economy. Like many beach towns, Huntington Beach is highly dependent on sport fishing and outdoor events like surf and volleyball competitions. The effects of the oil spill could linger for weeks or months just as the local economy tries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is why offshore oil drilling needs to stop,” Uchida told the paper.
This is not the only community facing the direct consequences of continued offshore drilling. The Gulf Coast, from South Texas to East Louisiana, continues to bear the brunt of climate change impacts while fighting existing and proposed oil and gas infrastructure. The petrochemical industry draws oil from public leases while destroying wetlands, damaging local fishing and shrimping economies, and displacing Black and Indigenous communities in Southern Louisiana.
Since Hurricane Ida struck the Gulf of Mexico this August, satellite surveillance has found over 2,200 reported instances of oil pollution in the Gulf. Texas City, a highly industrialized town in the Houston area with a history of many devastating petrochemical disasters, also suffered a major oil spill near the sensitive waters of Galveston Bay and only a few blocks from a local high school.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Rather than leasing land to the oil and gas industry, the Department of the Interior could actually play a vital role in assisting communities that are already experiencing the “bust” phase of the “boom and bust” fossil fuel economy. More than 500,000 abandoned oil and gas wells across the country threaten water quality and leak methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Plugging those wells could generate upwards of 120,000 jobs perfectly suited for displaced oil and gas workers.
Embracing this cleaner future is going to require Biden to take a firm stance and follow through on his campaign and in-office commitments to combat the climate crisis. Americans deserve to be healthy, economically secure, and protected from environmental injustice — achieving that requires ending fossil fuel leasing on public land and helping more people access cleaner energy alternatives.
Oil spills are a real-life consequence of our collective reliance on fossil fuels, and a chilling reminder of how much healthier the clean energy future will be. Biden must do his duty to protect our communities from fossil fuel pollution, and the best place to start is by leaving it in the ground on public lands.
Dan Ritzman is Lands, Water and Wildlife director for the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign.